Compassion is key to a successful Early Years Movement

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Thank you to all of you who have written to say: ‘You haven’t yet told us how the Scottish Parliament screening went!’ The time that’s passed, in a flurry of activity, has allowed lots of feedback about the event to roll in. And I find that that feedback has me thinking in new depth about what is needed for the Early Years Movement to succeed.

Considerable emphasis now exists within professional and policy circles on the need for early intervention. This enthusiasm derives from:

1) the neuroscience showing that human brains develop most rapidly in the early years

2) the long term studies that have tracked the consequences of stressed childhoods

3) the economic analyses showing that the greatest financial return is achieved from investing in those early years.

These insights have led to a focus on implementing intervention programmes that can support babies and young children who are growing up in what are typically referred to as ‘at-risk families’.

I am delighted by this shift in awareness. We absolutely need investment in early years intervention programmes, if we are to achieve the vision for society that we all hope for: one where there is less violence, better mental health, better educational outcomes, a stronger sense of community, and just generally a more tangible sense of the joy of life. Don’t forget: the UK and the USA rank at the bottom of Western countries in most comparative studies of child well-being. A more recent report attributed that low ranking to children’s decreasing time with family and to a society increasingly driven by materialism.

But early intervention programmes aren’t enough. We will need to take riskier, more surprising steps.

Once we get our heads around the implications of the neuroscience, we realize it pertains to every single aspect of a baby’s life: from how much time they are able to spend with family, to the stroller that they travel in, to the parent’s ‘pick up routine’ at nursery, to the way that they are comforted when they cry at night, to a parent’s ability to calm their own frustration when their child embarrasses them with a public temper tantrum.

I have begun to realise that the Early Years Movement is as much about us adults as it is about the babies. Perhaps even more so. Because once we begin to think more deeply about what a baby’s experiences are like, we go to a place of our deepest adult hopes and fears. We worry that we are inadequate parents; we feel hopeless at the idea we could mess up the children we love; we grieve again the losses we suffered at our own parents’ unknowing hands. The Early Years Movement turns out to be more radical and unsettling than we bargained on.

The comments that have come in since the Parliament event illustrate my point:

I keep thinking about our discussion at the screening about parental guilt. Gosh. I wonder if, in Britain, we are predisposed to guilt? Maybe it is a result of the Victorian parenting that has been passed down to us.

We do not have enough changes to see ordinary, normal interactions with babies. The film shows us all the small but intense interactions that our children so often miss out on.

I have realized from the film that some of the issues we are dealing with in our own family are probably down to the ways I reacted to the children when they were young. I left the event really wanting to find out from them whether it might be possible to repair some of that even at this late stage.

I know there was a lot of focus in the audience on the guilt that parents feel. However, I took away a different emotion. As a young woman, who hopes to become a parent one day, I was filled with HOPE. I was filled with hope that even if you get some things ‘wrong’, as long as there is love then you don’t need to be the perfect parent. I don’t mean that to sound flippant. You can’t be scared of failure because if there is love and understanding, there is connection.

Who’d have thought that this would be the message to emerge from an event being held in the preeminent political venue in the country, with attendees dressed in their best professional attire?

Ultimately, perhaps, the success of the Early Years Movement will depend not on our ability to look after others, who are living in ‘at-risk situations’. Maybe it will depend on our ability to look after ourselves – to be able to address our deepest, unconscious fears that we are not allowed to make mistakes, that we are always at risk of being judged as inadequate, imperfect, unworthy, unloveable. Judgement is hard enough when it comes from others, but of course the harshest form of judgement is often that which we lay on our own shoulders.

The Early Years Movement will probably succeed in the proportion that it can help compassion and non-judgement to flourish, in the extent to which it can nurture a landscape of acceptance of self and curiosity about others. When we stop pressuring ourselves to be perfect, then we step out of the fear of failure. When we stop blaming others for doing something ‘wrong’, then they experience the ease fulness of knowing they are acceptable. The neuroscience is telling us that what our children need to know, most of all, is that they are loved, come what may. Within that knowledge resides emotional safety. It is only by knowing one’s self as loved that you also know yourself to be loveable – worthy, adequate in imperfection. It turns out that us adults want the same thing as our children do — to know without doubt that we are loveable even in imperfection. What a relief!

In the moments when I think this statement seems either too grand or too soppy, I take comfort from the fact that I’m not the only early years commentator describing things in these kinds of terms. There are lots of us standing out here on this philosophical limb: paediatricians, scientists, mental health specialists and guru-types alike.

Of course, it leaves us with an interesting question here: how do we get something as ‘flippant’ as hope and compassion onto the political agenda?

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